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MINNESOTA LEGISLATURE: Longtime House speaker Sviggum ponders -- higher office or farm?

ST. PAUL - It's a different way of life for Rep. Steve Sviggum. For 14 years, the Kenyon Republican was a pillar of political power in the Minnesota House, serving as minority leader, then speaker. Then came November, when the elections left Minn...

ST. PAUL - It's a different way of life for Rep. Steve Sviggum.

For 14 years, the Kenyon Republican was a pillar of political power in the Minnesota House, serving as minority leader, then speaker.

Then came November, when the elections left Minnesota Republicans stripped of clout in all but the governor's office.

Sviggum, 55, emerged from the fallout, but returned to the Capitol as a political mortal.

The Kenyon Republican is not aglow over his political existence the past few months, but said he is accepting it.

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"It's hard," Sviggum said. "Would I much rather be speaker and setting the agenda? Yes."

Watching someone else - namely, Minneapolis Democrat Margaret Anderson Kelliher - at the helm of the House "leaves a bit of a hollow spot in your heart and in your stomach," Sviggum said.

But the veteran lawmaker said he's stifled himself when the urge arises to say, "I would have done it 'this way.'"

"I've tried very hard to not be just one to criticize," Sviggum said. "I've tried to do it with some degree of grace."

Stay in politics?

His status has left some wondering how much longer he will stay in politics after 28 years in the Legislature.

Daniel Hofrenning, an associate professor of political science at St. Olaf College - Sviggum's alma mater - said the former speaker "has gone up the ranks about as high as someone can go."

Still, Hofrenning speculated, "I don't see him getting out of politics."

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Sen. Tom Saxhaug, DFL-Grand Rapids, attended St. Olaf at the same time as Sviggum. Having watched Sviggum's rise to power, Saxhaug said he doubts the former speaker will fade into the shadows.

"He's not dead," Saxhaug said. "He's not going back to the farm."

Sviggum, who recently was tapped for a senior fellow post at the University of Minnesota's Humphrey Institute, said he has yet to make up his mind.

He pledged to fulfill the remainder of his term, which expires in 2008. Beyond that, Sviggum said he is "not closing any doors."

The former math teacher, who at one time considered running for governor, said one option could be going back to the farm he operates with his brothers. Or it could mean staying in the political game.

For now, he's playing it cautiously.

"I am not ambitiously seeking to run for another office," he said.

Views of JohnsonFormer Senate Majority Leader Dean Johnson, DFL-Willmar, said he's not sure what lies ahead for Sviggum.

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"We're probably both in a holding pattern," said Johnson, whom legislators elected a University of Minnesota regent after he lost his re-election bid in November. "I can't tell you either one of us is done with politics."

Johnson worked closely with Sviggum during legislative budget negotiations along with Gov. Tim Pawlenty and former House Minority Leader Matt Entenza.

Pawlenty cabinet?Entenza, a St. Paul DFLer, said he "would not be surprised if (Sviggum) went to help the Pawlenty administration" after 2008.

Some, including Rep. Tom Rukavina, DFL-Virginia, wonder why Sviggum wasn't offered a job in Pawlenty's cabinet after the Republican governor was re-elected.

Rukavina said that before the session started, he told Sviggum that he believed the former speaker deserved a cabinet post.

"I think Tim Pawlenty owes a lot to Steve Sviggum," Rukavina said, adding that he hugged Sviggum - a far cry from the verbal battles the two men have held in public - during the meeting. "I'm absolutely surprised he hasn't given him a job in that administration."

Sviggum shrugged off the notion.

"Tim is my best friend," he said. "At this time, the governor needs my voice in the legislative process."

Congress bid?But if congressional district lines allowed, Sviggum said, he would challenge U.S. Rep. Tim Walz, a Democrat, for a congressional seat in 2008. Sviggum's Kenyon farm was in southern Minnesota's 1st Congressional District for years until 2000 redistricting efforts put him in U.S. Rep. John Kline's 2nd district.

Mentor, recruiterRep. Kurt Zellers, R-Maple Grove, isn't complaining that Sviggum is still a legislator. Zellers sits next to Sviggum in the House chambers, which is "literally like having state history sitting next to you," said the Devils Lake, N.D., native, calling Sviggum a mentor.

Zellers described Sviggum as a legendary recruiter of Republican candidates who has a knack for door-to-door politicking.

Entenza said Sviggum "has to have the hardest work ethic that I've seen as a politician," and noted that he modeled Democratic recruitment efforts off Sviggum's blueprint.

Some benefitsThere are benefits of what's amounted to a new political life, Sviggum said.

He relishes the opportunity to carry bills and speak on the House floor.

"I've tried to keep a very, very positive attitude and look at the opportunities and the hopes - rather than what no longer exists," Sviggum said.

As speaker, his duties called on him to recruit Republicans from across the state. That responsibility has shrunk, Sviggum said, as have the lines of eager lobbyists that once formed outside his office.

"It's not what I wanted," Sviggum said of his new free time, "but it's not a bad thing."

Johnson, SviggumJohnson first met Sviggum during graduate studies at St. Olaf. He recalled Sviggum as a 165-pound football player who "hit really hard."

"He took that same virtue into his political life," Johnson said.

But the two Norwegian Lutherans from southeastern Minnesota took divergent paths through life, Johnson said. While Johnson broke from the Republican Party in 2000 to become a Democrat, he said was puzzled that Sviggum has become more conservative during his stay in office.

"That's not the culture or religious upbringing that we were exposed to," Johnson said of Sviggum's conservative leaning. "I figured it must be political."

Like Johnson, Saxhaug remembers the football-playing Sviggum, but recalled another nuance from college days.

The former speaker kept a chicken in his dorm room, Saxhaug said.

True, said Sviggum. The chicken was taken by his roommate from a biology class where Sviggum said the chicken would have met its maker.

Sviggum, who tutors students at a St. Paul church, said he has been treated "very well, very respectfully" by Democrats. He also rejected suspicions that he's become a sniping target.

"I don't believe the Democrats are trying to get back at the former Republican speaker," he said.

Longaecker works for Forum Communications, which owns the Herald.

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